Joaquín Rivera

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Musician and Community Activist

Joaquín Rivera

(1946- 2009)

Joaquín Rivera was a musician and activist who revitalized Puertorriqueno traditions in his local Philadelphia community and shared them on national stages. 

Joaquin Rivera was born in the Puerto Rican mountain town of Cayey in 1946. The youngest of eleven children, he experienced hardship from an early age, but his love for music was evident from childhood. After leaving school in sixth grade, he worked until he was able to buy his first guitar, and later learned to play traditional Puertorriqueno music on the cuatro. In 1964, Rivera moved to Philadelphia, where he worked in a factory while learning English and earning his GED. He eventually went to Community College of Philadelphia, and then to Rutgers University. Upon completing his degrees, he worked for the next thirty-two years as a bilingual student counselor at Olney High School, where he mentored hundreds of students into college.

Rivera used traditional musical forms, especially the Afro-Boricua bomba and plena, to strengthen and spread awareness of Puertorriqueno culture in Philadelphia. He also celebrated Puertorriqueno Christmas traditions such as the parranda, a festive tradition that combines elements similar to those of mumming and caroling, and Three Kings Day festivities within in the Philadelphia Puertorriqueno community. His group, Los Pleneros del Batey, used their platform to spread awareness on social justice and political issues affecting both Puerto Rico and its diaspora from the 1970s until his death in 2009. They performed traditional songs and composed their own music, in which human rights issues featured prominently. Police brutality, housing rights, the bombing of Vieques by the US Navy, and the AIDS epidemic are among the specific themes addressed by Rivera through his music. He composed the theme song for the documentary I Choose to Stay Here, which highlighted Philadelphia MOVE community’s struggle for justice when they were threatened by the enforcement of a redevelopment initiative.  

Rivera brought Puertorriqueno traditional music to larger audiences, performing at the National Folk Festivals in Youngstown, Pennsylvania and Lowell, Massachusetts in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  In 2007, the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations, also known as Concilio, honored Rivera with its Lifetime Achievement Award. Today, Joaquín Rivera’s legacy and endeavor to pass along Puerto Rican cultural forms continues to be maintained by the North Philadelphia community. Taller Puertorriqueño Museum presents the Joaquin Rivera Service Award, and the community, in collaboration with Rivera’s son, awards five annual college scholarships, in Rivera’s honor, to students from Olney High School, where he taught for decades.  In 2010, Philadelphia’s Puertorriqueño community dedicated the “Desfile del Pueblo,” a parade founded by Rivera, to him.

Among his contributions are:

I Choose to Stay Here (2004 documentary)

Gloria Colom Braña